Op-ed: Accredited coach education helps ensure kids benefit from youth football programs

We have an athlete-focused, shared vision for youth sports: keep it fun, teach and play smarter and always put kids’ interests first.

This is what 21st century youth football looks like.

Between the two of us, we both played football from youth leagues through college. One has coached it for nearly 40 years at college and NFL levels. The other serves as the Chief of Neuropsychology at Children’s National Hospital, directing a large clinical and research team to improve the lives of children. We understand the benefits and risks of any sport, including varieties of football games like flag, tackle and others in between. We have different backgrounds and experiences, yet we share mutually endorsed principles for kids playing the United States’ favorite sport.

A pair of recent published studies involving more than 17,000 kids combined provide evidence for the importance of youth sports. One study showed a strong positive correlation between participants’ physical fitness, concentration levels and health-related quality of life. In another, children who played team sports were reported by their parents or guardians to experience less anxiety, depression and social problems than those who did not participate in sports. And, of course, friendships and community are inherent to the sports our kids love to play — we know this as dads of former youth athletes.

Do sports, including football, come with challenges? Yes, they do, including concerns about player safety and the quality of coaching on grassroots levels.

So, how do we best address these?

We need youth sports programs to exercise great care for their children through accredited coach education. We also need forward-thinking on-field standards that have the support of leading medical associations.

Many youth leagues, driven by incredible volunteers, are already here. They embrace standards put forth by USA Football, a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

Later this summer, USA Football will announce its 1,000,000th Youth Coach Certification completion — a figure that underscores how educated coaches are the new normal in modern youth football.

Accredited by the U.S. Center for Coaching Excellence, USA Football’s Youth Coach Certification covers player health and safety, including concussion recognition and response; foundations for transformational coaching; abuse prevention; and teaching the fundamentals of blocking, block-defeat, and tackling, as well as proper equipment fitting. Included with certification are prescribed practice plans, a player progression development guide, playbooks for different football game types, coaching webinars and other resources.

Leagues committed to teaching and playing the game the right way earn rewards and recognition through USA Football’s League Excellence Program. When youth programs offer nationally supported coach education, practice guidelines and other high standards, they earn Bronze-, Silver-, and Gold-tier distinctions, which come with benefits to make their program even better for their kids and families. This includes cost-savings and discounts through USA Football, field banners promoting league standards, placement in USA Football’s League Finder for parents, and more.

Our hope is that kids nationwide enjoy the fun, fitness and friendships found in sports this summer and fall. And if the excitement of football — in any form — captures their imagination as it did (and does) ours, youth programs upholding USA Football’s standards are ready to deliver a great experience.

John Harbaugh is a Super Bowl-winning head coach entering his 15th season leading the Baltimore Ravens. The 2019 NFL Coach of the Year has led Baltimore to a playoff berth in nine seasons (2008-2012, 2014 and 2018-2020), and in 2012, he captured the franchise’s second world championship. Devoted to numerous charitable causes, he and his wife are former youth sports parents. Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., is the Division Chief of Neuropsychology and the director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Hospital and is a George Washington University School of Medicine Professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry. A member of USA Football’s Board of Directors and its Medical Advisory Panel, Dr. Gioia is the team neuropsychologist for the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, multiple school systems and numerous youth sports organizations in the Baltimore-Washington region. He and his wife are the parents of former youth athletes.

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